Aurora Orchestra/Collon/Booth review – Julian Anderson curates an illuminating and unexpected programme

Wigmore Hall, London
Claire Booth sang Stravinsky, Ravel, Birtwistle, Julian Anderson – and a new piece by Augusta Read Thomas based on Emily Dickinson’s bird poems

Claire Booth
Easily expressive … soprano Claire Booth. Photograph: Sven Arnstein
Easily expressive … soprano Claire Booth. Photograph: Sven Arnstein
Andrew Clements

Last modified on Thu 26 Mar 2020 08.52 EDT

As the Wigmore Hall’s composer-in-residence, Julian Anderson gets to devise many of the concerts that feature his music. He’s very good at it, too, invariably selecting pieces that not only create a revealing context for his work but which illuminate each other in unexpected ways. For the Aurora Orchestra’s programme with soprano Claire Booth, Anderson placed a 1990s score of his own and the first performance of a commission from Augusta Read Thomas alongside works by Stravinsky, Ravel and Birtwistle that, he said, were “absolute classics which are almost never heard in London concerts these days”.

It worked beautifully. The Stravinsky and Ravel miniatures – the former’s string-quartet Concertino and Japanese Lyrics, and the latter’s settings of Mallarmé – provided the perfect introduction to the sequence of eight tiny chiselled pieces that make up Anderson’s Poetry Nearing Silence, while Birtwistle’s gritty, confrontational Tragoedia, 50 years old this year, offered a complete contrast to Thomas’s Emily Dickinson settings, even if, by ignoring the instrumental layout that Birtwistle prescribes in the score, conductor Nicholas Collon did undermine the visual impact of the piece’s symmetries and sense of ritual theatre.

Conceived very much with Booth’s easily expressive voice in mind, Thomas’s Of Being Is a Bird separates two of Dickinson’s celebrations of avian freedom and flight with a fleet, glistening interlude for the ensemble of five winds, harp and three strings. The first song, based on the title poem, is strikingly effective, with the smoothly contoured, long-limbed vocal lines given a shimmering halo of sharp instrumental attacks and splinters, and while the second, The Most Triumphant Bird I Ever Knew or Met, loses some of its individuality as it goes on, lapsing into an unmemorable postmodernism that even Booth’s musical intelligence couldn’t make truly distinctive, the sense of a beautifully shaped and effective triptych remained.

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